Selfridges Signs Up

Cartlidge Levene have designed Selfridges’ new wayfinding system. Mark Sinclair spoke to them about navigating their way through such a large undertaking

CREATIVE REVIEW: How do you approach a project like this. What research did you do?

IAN CARTLIDGE, CARTLIDGE LEVENE: We began the project in September 2005 and we knew that the wayfinding problems at Selfridges were immense. The only approach was to build a completely new system based on a total under­standing of the problems. So we fully immersed ourselves in the store environment and recorded and analysed key journeys. We also established a kind of open house ‘project room’ at the store for two weeks where we built up a picture of the issues from Selfridges directors and staff who could drop by.

MELISSA PRICE, CARTLIDGE LEVENE: We also recognised that the retail environment is very different to other environments we’ve been involved in signing on past projects, like the Barbican Arts Centre. Customers are in the store to enjoy the shopping experience, and part of this is enjoying ‘getting lost’ in the spectacle and theatre of the shopping environment. We decided we’d ‘turn down the volume’ rather than shout above the many brands and concessions vying for attention.

CR: What kind of issues did Selfridges want you to look at as part of the brief?

IC: Selfridges were aware of most of the problems they faced and provided a brief that talked about being ‘customer friendly’, ‘easy to maintain’, ‘environment enhancing’, ‘impactful’ etc. The brief was two-fold: to deliver a way­finding system that works, actually moves people from a to b, and to design it in a way that is simple and stylish and reflects the brand.

CR: What problems had you highlighted that needed attention?

IC: The need to create a flexible solution was vital. In the past Selfridges had been dogged by signage that was constantly out of date and stickers were appearing over information on signs in an attempt to update them (2). Not only does it look unprofessional and undermine the brand, it also, crucially, breaks the trust between the sign and the customer. People lose faith in the information and are more likely to seek reassurance by asking staff for directions. We wanted to create a beautifully-designed product that offered a simple and affordable method of change but also had a sense of permanence. We collaborated with product designer Julian Brown to achieve this: our concept was to create beautiful frames that simply held information, beautifully-detailed but not overpowering, allowing the information to do the work (finished totem shown, 1; working model, 7&10 overpage).

CR: What kinds of issues regarding the building did you have to take into account?

IC: Selfridges’ Oxford Street store first opened in 1909 and the shop actually comprises three building phases constructed at different times. The third building in Duke Street was joined via a bridge section, therefore different construction methods have been used, making universal fixings for hanging signs and floor mounted signs impossible. We enlisted the help of Endpoint and structural engineers Techniker to survey the various floor and ceiling conditions and develop appropriate fixing methods (11). All work had to be done during the night with no sign of activity the next morning – a considerable logistical challenge. We also realised that, when you enter the store, you quickly lose sight of the door and the next landmark that you encounter is one of the four escalators. We decided not to interrupt the flow of shoppers into the store with information at the point of entry but to make the escalators function as ‘wayfinding hubs’ (1&13).

CR: What kinds of materials did you use for the signage system? Who did you bring in to source the materials?

IC: We explored several materials for the signs but the one that gave us the solution we were looking for was acrylic. In terms of the totems, this fitted with the ‘beautiful frame’ concept and allowed us to create a sign with consider­able physical presence but, because of translucency, not too overbearing. The totems are made from bonded layers of acrylic, 90mm thick. The digitally-printed graphic panel sits in the middle behind 40mm of clear acrylic which creates a beautiful jewel-like optical effect and provides a sense of quality and permanence: like a piece of bespoke furniture relating to its environment, rather than a standard. The totems on the Ground floor were the most daring and challenging to make, at 3.5m high.

MP: We worked with acrylic fabricators Alternative Plastics who pushed the acrylic fabrication process to its limits to achieve these large-scale, bonded, acrylic signs and Endpoint met the huge challenge of installing the signs around the store. During the design and implementation process we worked closely with architects hmkm who were involved in refurbishing many areas of the store, enhancing sightlines and the clarity of the space.

IC: For the hanging signs the information had to be easy to change, at height, by the in-house team. Again, working with Julian we solved this by using two clear acrylic rods (9) which hold a digitally-printed wrap. The wrap (5, 6&12) can be simply un-hooked and re-applied when information changes.

CR: What typeface did you decide to use?

MP: Avant Garde. We didn’t want to continue with Helvetica, the face previously used by Selfridges. We felt that while Helvetica is highly legible and effective as a font for signage  (think Vignelli) for the Selfridges retail environment it didn’t have enough personality and individuality. Avant Garde provides an equally legible solution and hints at the Deco heritage of the store with the geometric form of its characters. We did consider taking this a step further with numerals in Bauhaus but after much consideration we though this may be too whimsical. Selfridges have since adopted Avant Garde as their in-house font.

CR: Did you leave any guidelines with their design studio? What’s next for the project?

MP: A major element of our handover was to ensure that the system is always considered as a connected whole, rather than as individual signs being changed without thinking about how this links into the rest of the system.

IC: The scheme will be rolled out to the Birmingham store in 2008. While this presents its own set of wayfinding challenges, the underlying principles and design concept will remain the same.

More of Cartlidge Levene’s work for Selfridges can be seen at


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